The Texas Senate race, which will be decided Saturday, is getting much more attention, but the New Jersey Republican primary election next Tuesday is potentially just as important, perhaps more so. The winner, one of three candidates, will go up against Governor James Florio in November in a race of national importance. Florio's election four years ago, managed by James Carville, became the template for last year's Clinton campaign, with Carville again in the saddle. If Florio can win re-election after having lost the confidence of the New Jersey electorate in his first years as governor -- at one point dropping to approval ratings below 20% — Carville will have demonstrated to President Clinton that it can be done again, even if the President's ratings continue their historic slide into 1994. It is by no means certain that Florio will be defeated, as the three GOP possibilities each have their problems, and Carville does have the talent to be able to cut and paste together a Florio re-election. There will be a Perot factor in the race, as United We Stand will be involved. The cut-and-slash of the issues will be watched by the high commands of both national political parties for clues to how the House and Senate races might be played out in the '94 national elections.
The favorite in the primary is Christine Todd Whitman, whom I advised and supported in her run against Senator Bill Bradley in 1990. She came from nowhere to close within a mere 1000 votes of defeating Bradley, who as a result was no longer seen as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in '92. Ms. Whitman, an impressive young woman with a quick mind and a fastidious command of policy detail, ran against Bradley by linking him to Florio, which was pretty much the long and short of her campaign. This year, she has run an uninspired campaign, her weaknesses rather than strengths showing. A silver-spoon lady from New Jersey's horse country, she has thus far come across as the quintessential country club Republican, a kind of Nick Brady noblesse oblige permeating her campaign, with a "nanny problem" to boot. I'm afraid Jim Carville will grind her into hamburger, or perhaps Steak Tartare, and eat her raw.
Gary Edwards, who was attorney general under Governor Tom Kean, is the GOP organization's candidate in the field. He has more posters up all over the state, but has been even less inspiring than Ms. Whitman. He has been running a textbook negative campaign against her, blathering away at her in the televised debates about picky this and picky that, effectively reminding us that she has been a privileged lady, using tax loopholes to pay only $47 in taxes on her 50-acre estate in Somerset County, getting it classified as farmland by selling off $500 in Christmas trees. This is the kind of spice Carville likes in his Steak Tartare. Edwards, by the way, also has a "nanny problem," which seems to be endemic in New Jersey's upper classes.
James D. Wallwork, 62, and Lark, his wife of 30 years, were packed for a trip to Israel when the news hit that Edwards, like Whitman, had a nanny problem. They were hit with the awful thought that they would be forced to live with another four years of Florio. Wallwork, a retired, successful small businessman who had served 16 years in the New Jersey legislature, announced his candidacy.
A month ago, Wallwork visited my home in Morristown to ask for help. I'd spent little time thinking about the race, but had been aware that Wallwork was the only one of the three Republicans who had pledged to roll back the Florio tax increases. By virtue of her showing against Bradley, Christie Whitman had enough of a warchest to hire Ed Rollins as her chief strategist, the same Rollins who destroyed the Ross Perot campaign for President after he signed on last spring. Rollins has had her playing a run-out-the-clock strategy, which means she is not supposed to take any chances.
Wallwork, I discovered after several meetings with him, is not only a Reagan Republican, but also a man cut from the same cloth as the Gipper himself. In a letter of endorsement I've sent to the New Jersey press, I said the following:
Jim Wallwork was made to order. He's a Reagan Republican who understands business from the bottom up, not the top down. He has lived and worked among ordinary people of all races and ethnic backgrounds -- and knows how difficult life can be for ordinary people in troubled times. He has the disciplined mind of a West Point graduate. And he spent 16 years in the New Jersey legislature, earning a reputation for unquestioned integrity and legislative skill.
He's not afraid of democracy, which is why he is able to speak so confidently and enthusiastically about expanding the political power of ordinary people in the state through initiative, referendum, and recall -- with recall at the top of his list. He is so ardent in supporting these ideas that I can't imagine he would forget these promises once elected.
He understands that the problems of the nation and of the state are rooted in a tax system that discourages risk taking, initiative, and entrepreneurial capitalism — of the kind that makes it possible for young people of ordinary means to achieve their God given potential. As governor, he would begin this process by asking that the biggest barrier of this kind -- the state capital gains tax — be eliminated entirely by the legislature. Jim understands this one measure would immediately increase the value of all assets in the state — homes, businesses and farms, as well as increase business activity in every corner of the state.
If he would somehow pull off a victory next week, Wallwork would demolish Florio in November, as his positions on social issues complement his strength on the economy. New Jersey is a heavily Italian, Catholic state, and Florio is an Italian Catholic who is pro-choice on the abortion issue. Whitman and Edwards have the same position, which means in the general election, conservative Catholics have no place to go. After the "nanny" problem cropped up, Matthew Rinaldo, who had just resigned his House seat in Washington, announced that he might get into the GOP gubernatorial primary. Jim Carville immediately saw the problems this would bring Florio, as Rinaldo is an Italian Catholic who is pro-life. He got President Clinton to dangle a federal appointment before Rinaldo, who then backed away from the race.
Wallwork's position is the Perot, libertarian position, which is that a woman has a right to do as she wishes with her own body, but that she should not expect the taxpayers at any level of government to help her finance an abortion. There's enough room here for this issue to make a difference in the general election, as the pro-lifers will at least have someplace to go.
What chance does Wallwork have? In primaries like this one, most voters generally do not make up their minds until the weekend before the election. In 1978, the Reagan Revolution began in a New Jersey GOP primary when young Jeffrey Bell defeated five-term U.S. Senator Clifford Case in the June 6 GOP primary. On the Friday before the primary, polls showed Bell with 12% of the vote — the most devoted 12%, who worked the telephones over the weekend to produce an astonishing upset. Whitman now seems close to 30% of the vote, but 50% are undecided. USAToday yesterday reported a sharp tightening of the race, with GOP Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian calling it "a wide-open race. That's what I'm hearing at the grass roots level."
Wallwork's burden is his chief strategist, Art Finkelstein, who has a good record of winning GOP primaries by casting his clients as right-wingers and their opponents as liberals. The message loses in general elections. Coincidentally, Finkelstein guided Jeff Bell to defeat against Bill Bradley in 1978. In the current campaign, Wallwork's TV spots label Whitman a "liberal," which makes him seem harshly conservative. In fact, like Reagan he is more an "optimist" than a conservative. There is not a trace of meanness in him. Like Reagan, he has a sunny, upbeat, can-do disposition with a live-and-let-live attitude. His qualities shine through in his free television and radio interviews, which is what is keeping him competitive in the race. The Finkelstein ads are a millstone around his neck.
Perot has not shown his hand in the race, but his organization in New Jersey had the three candidates debate last week, and Wallwork clearly won the crowd. USAToday yesterday noted that Wallwork is "seen by some as the Ross Perot of the campaign." If Wallwork wins, Perot will be in his corner this fall, you can bet. If Whitman wins, with Ed Rollins at her side, you can bet Perot will not. In any case, this will be the most important political contest of the year.